William Whewell, peer-review pioneer. Credit: Paul D. Stewart/SPL

Referees are overworked. The problem of bias is intractable. The referee system has broken down and become an obstacle to scientific progress. Traditional refereeing is an antiquated form that might have been good for science in the past but it's high time to put it out of its misery.

What is this familiar litany? It is a list of grievances aired by scientists a century ago.If complaining about the faults of referee systems is nothing new, such systems are not as old as historical accounts often claim. Investigators of nature communicated their findings without scientific referees for centuries. Deciding whom and what to trust usually depended on personal knowledge among close-knit groups of researchers. (Many might argue it still does.)

The first referee systems that we would recognize as such were set in place by English scientific societies in the early nineteenth century. But these referees were never intended to play the part of supreme scientific gatekeepers. That notion emerged in around 1900 (see 'Past notes'). It was exactly then that some began to wonder whether referee systems might be fundamentally flawed. In this sense, peer review has always been broken.

Today, with the debate about the future of peer review more fraught than ever, it is crucial to understand the youth of this institution. What's more, its workings and its imagined goals have evolved continually, and its current tensions bear the marks of this. The referee system has become a mishmash of practices, functions and values. But one thing stands out: pivotal moments in the history of peer review have occurred when the public status of science was being renegotiated.

Scientific publicists

The peer-review scam

In 1831, William Whewell, a Cambridge professor and philosopher of science, proposed a scheme to the Royal Society of London. He suggested that it commission reports on all papers sent for publication in the semi-annual Philosophical Transactions. Written by teams of eminent scholars, these reports might, he argued, be “often more interesting than the memoirs themselves” and thus a great source of publicity for science1. Besides, authors would be grateful to know that their papers would be read carefully by at least two or three people. The society was just then launching a new journal to be called the Proceedings of the Royal Society, a cheaper monthly periodical to include abstracts of papers presented at the society. It had pages to fill and seemed the ideal place for these new reports.

At the time, editors of scientific journals made publishing decisions by personal fiat, perhaps in consultation with some trusted helpers. For publications that belonged to a scientific academy or society — such as the Philosophical Transactions — the vote of some committee of eminent persons would determine a manuscript's fate. (The temptation to conflate these practices with modern referee systems has led to the stubborn myth that the origins of the scientific referee can be traced back as far as the seventeenth century.)